Play-in Playoff Primer: Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9)

Play-in Playoff Primer: Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9)

This article is part of our Cap Compliance series.

After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 3rd in Atlantic, .579 points percentage)

vs.

No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 6th in Metropolitan, .579 points percentage)

Up Front

Maple Leafs: There may be no team in the league that can muster the sheer star power of this forward complement that features Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander – with Matthews leading the way in goals (47) and points (80).  The club figures to round out the top six with the likes of Zach Hyman on the top line and the recently-returned Ilya Mikheyev, though Kasperi Kapanen could push for an expanded role if either of the aforementioned wingers struggles to produce. Having a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Kyle Clifford and veteran presence Jason Spezza holding down the fourth line provides the Leafs with not only a bottom group that can produce, but plenty of leadership. Toronto ended the year third in goals per game (3.39)

Blue Jackets: Columbus' leading scorer, Pierre-Luc Dubois, managed 18 goals and 49 points this year, which would have only been good enough for fifth with Toronto. The Jackets forward complement includes just one 20-goal producer in Oliver Bjorkstrand, who figures to slot onto the top line with Dubois. The top-six will likely round out with Alexandre Texier on the first line and Gustav Nyquist, Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson making up the second group. The biggest unknown will no doubt be Texier, who managed just 36 games this year due to injury but put up 13 points along the way.

The Blue Line

Maple Leafs: Injuries prevented this group from playing together much this season, as Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Cody Ceci all spent time on the shelf. As a result, Tyson Barrie led the way in blue-line production with five goals and 39 points, including 12 power-play points. With everybody healthy, it will likely fall to Barrie and Rielly to hold down the spots on the power play, though overall minutes could be down for the pair as the coaching staff is able to better divide the workload.

Blue Jackets: This is perhaps the one spot in the lineup where the Jackets have an advantage, as this group is led by 20-goal scorer Zach Werenski and 30-point man Seth Jones. The club appears set to have the duo anchoring their top pairing but could shuffle the deck a bit with Vladislav Gavrikov and David Savard possibly getting more opportunities. There won't be much in terms of offensive production from the bottom pairing, so fans can likely expect Werenski and Jones to log huge ice time during this series, perhaps even approaching 30 minutes a night. 

Between the Pipes

Maple Leafs: While his name didn't come up for the Vezina Trophy, Frederik Andersen put together another solid campaign, racking up 29 wins (fourth in the league) with a .909 save percentage, 2.85 GAA and three shutouts. The netminder also faced the fourth most shots this season (1577), which likely won't change even with a healthy blue line in front of him. There is no question who will be between the pipes for Toronto, though Jack Campbell should challenge for more games in 2020-21. 

Blue Jackets: Joonas Korpisalo entered the season as the presumptive No. 1 and put up a solid 17-10-4 record and .913 save percentage before suffering a knee injury in late December. As a result, Elvis Merzlikins stepped up and had an even better debut NHL season in which he went 31-13-9 with a .923 save percentage and five shutouts. The duo may be competing for the starting job when Columbus faces off against Boston in the July 30 exhibition matchup. Whoever gets the nod for Game 1 versus Toronto on Aug. 2 will likely be on a short leash with head coach John Tortorella. 

Injury Concerns

Maple Leafs: Both Jake Muzzin and Ilya Mikheyev were dealing with injuries when the league went on hiatus back in March but are set to jump back into the playoffs. Prior to suffering a wrist injury back in December, the 25-year-old Mikheyev was putting together a fantastic rookie campaign, as he registered 23 points in 39 games and appears set to retake the spot on the second line with Tavares. 

Blue Jackets: At the time the league shut down, Columbus was dealing with several injuries to the likes of Seth Jones, Alexandre Texier and Oliver Bjorkstrand – all of whom are set to suit up versus the Leafs. The Jackets remain without Josh Anderson (shoulder), who could return if the team makes it past Toronto, and Brandon Dubinsky, who may be forced to end his career on long-term injured reserve due to a chronic wrist condition. 

Expert Opinions

AJ Scholz: It would be easy to look at the list of names on the Maple Leafs' roster and simply write off the Jackets, which is exactly what most people did last season when they swept the Lightning. This is a very different Columbus squad, but they remain a team that is helmed by Tortorella, who demands accountability and two-way play – something Toronto has struggled to do all season. As the old adage goes, hard work beats skill when skill doesn't work hard. Columbus in five.  

Kyle Riley: I think Columbus' smothering defense and above-average goaltending will keep this one relatively close, but the Blue Jackets simply don't have enough firepower up front or on the back end to keep up with the Maple Leafs' star-studded lineup in a five game series. Toronto in five. 

Jordan Buckley: I wouldn't say I'm all in on the Maple Leafs, but this team possesses a trio of game-breakers in Matthews, Marner and Tavares and a pair of offensive studs on the blue line in Rielly and Barrie. Columbus doesn't feature a single player that makes other teams say "uh oh" when they hop over the boards – not even former 41-goal-man Atkinson. I'm not in the "but they swept Tampa last year" camp, either, and Columbus only won 13 of 44 games away from Nationwide Arena this season. Toronto in four.

Jason Chen: Ignore past history for a second — the Jackets need to be flawless on defense to win. They will need to block shots, suppress quality shots and get key saves, but the Leafs offense might just be too good. They won't need to score many goals because the Jackets can't score anyway. Maple Leafs in four.

Evan Berofsky: Toronto must be ecstatic not to play Boston first, though Columbus can't be dismissed based on its emphatic sweep of Tampa Bay last season.  The Blue Jackets will try to frustrate the Leafs, so it's key for the "hosts" to score early.  While both Korpisalo and Merzlikins performed well, Andersen should limit his mistakes enough to give Toronto the series. Leafs in five.

Jan Levine: Toronto has elite weapons at forward but questions on its blueline and between the pipes. Columbus is far less impressive up front but is getting nearly all its injured players back. Atkinson had a disappointing, injury-riddled year but has the ability to be a difference maker. On paper, it's Toronto — and it would not shock if the Leafs swept — but we saw what Columbus did to Tampa Bay last season, and the Blue Jackets come in as spoilers while the Maple Leafs have all the pressure. Columbus in five.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Scholz
Co-Host of PuckCast with Statsman and AJ and unabashed Penguins fan.
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